Saturday 19 June 2010

Real learning – let’s not confuse it with completing templated exercises


I read a piece written by Kate Graham of e2train on Thursday and it started me thinking about the ‘real learning versus managed learning’ debate.

I found I disagreed with Kate’s view on a number of points, and stand on the other side of the fence from her argument for a number of reasons.

I don’t want anyone to get me wrong. I like Kate a lot. We’ve known each other for a number of years. I just think that she has got it wrong in this piece as to what real learning is and the role that LMS and ‘social learning’ have to play in the mix of building workforce capability and effectiveness in organisations.

State of Confusion


Firstly, let’s clear something up. We shouldn’t confuse what L&D/Training departments spend a lot of their time on with real learning.

Learning professionals spend a significant amount of their time (maybe even the majority) designing and delivering content and then evaluating completions and short-term memory outputs from structured mandatory and compliance training modules and courses.

Although this activity is a necessary and sometimes important one (even if only to keep the CEO and Chairman out of the courts and prison) it has little to do with real learning.

Compliance training is primarily about recording activity and gathering data that can be provided to regulatory or professional bodies or kept for a rainy day.

I bet Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, hopes and prays that his L&D teams have well-documented evidence that everyone involved with the Deepwater Horizon drill rig had been through their mandatory and compliance training. It won’t mean that they were all competent or learned anything, but it sure-as-hell will help him and BP when the regulatory authorities come knocking.

The Importance of Compliance Training

There is no doubt that organisations need an LMS or LMS-type functionality to track training activity linked to compliance and mandatory requirements. Organisations need to ensure that their employees complete certain activities in order to meet national and international regulations. Sarbanes-Oxley, AML, Fraud, Health & Safety all fall into this category along with a lot of other industry-specific demands for compliance or ‘proof’ of activity.

Regulators haven’t come up with a better way of measuring compliance than by measuring activity. Some would argue that by passing a test or gaining certification the candidate has provided proof that they will behave in a compliant way. In fact what they have proved is that they can pass a compliance test. A good short-term memory (or even a not-so-good one) will usually do the trick.

Kate, on her e2train blog, cites David Wilkins’ ‘A Defense of the LMS’ piece in pointing out that compliance training is a ‘big deal’ for organisations and here I absolutely agree. LMS technology has provided a big step forward here. Database technology in its other guises has helped organisations collect and manipulate data across the entire HR arena over the past 25 years far-and-away beyond what was done beforehand with pen-and-paper, and then spreadsheets. LMS has certainly done the trick for gathering compliance data.

Beyond Compliance

However I think there’s a question to be asked whether LMS should be the primary tool to provide more than the environment to execute compliance and mandatory requirements efficiently and effectively and to serve up content within the constructs of modules, courses, programmes and curricula.

Harold Jarche, in a short but insightful piece, recently wrote:

“..if learning is work and work is learning, why is organizational learning controlled by a learning management systems (LMS) that isn’t connected to the work being done in the enterprise?”

Maybe LMS vendors would be better off sticking to their knitting and letting the maelstrom that is the profusion of targeted ‘2.0’ (for want of a better term) tools that are emerging virtually every day to provided support for process-based learning.

This is already happening. Most people working in the knowledge economy want to create their own personal learning environments with tools that suit the way they work, gather information, and learn. They prefer not to be shoe-horned into large enterprise applications no matter what the benefits of ‘integration, consistency and scale’ their IT colleagues have been sold by software vendors.

The challenges IT departments are facing with requests for access to public Internet personal social tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and hundreds of others is just a foretaste of what is to come in this arena.

Employees will continue to demand access to the tools that best work for them in their personal learning environment. The battle won’t be won by IT lock-down but by acceptable use policies and enabling mindsets.

Equally the challenges of providing tools and functionality for process-based learning won’t be won by adding features to already behemoth event-driven LMS tools. It will be won by loose-coupling of a multitude of independent applications, and superficial integration at the interface level.

Can We Really ‘Manage’ Learning?


Most of us have been persuaded that the majority of real learning occurs in the workplace through experience and practice and over the water cooler through conversations and reflection. It may be an interesting intellectual pursuit to argue whether the % of learning that occurs outside classrooms and other formal module, course, programme, curriculum structures is 70%, 80%, 90% or some other figure and whether the evidence supports one assumption over another, but arguments like that add little value to the fact that there is an increasing body of empirical evidence that says we learn as we work.

Returning to Kate’s argument, it seems to me to be a defence of the status quo. That learning is almost an end in itself and separate from work. That’s the space that learning management systems have traditionally played in. The interesting thing is that this status quo is likely to be usurped in the very near future, if it’s not already been so. We can certainly see the cracks.

The Demise of the Course Vending Machine

Kate points out that today’s learning management systems (whether they’re branded as LMS or as some other infrastructural component) are very different from the course vending machines that appeared in the 1990s. To an extent I can see a lot prettier LMS tools, but most still have at their heart the management of learning events, rather than the management of learning.

I doubt whether learning can actually be managed by anyone other than the person who is developing their own skills, capability and changes in their behaviour. Learning and development professionals, managers, colleagues, friends and families can certainly help facilitate learning. They can also assist in creating an environment to help learning occur. But the management of the very personal process of learning is down to each of us in our own context. Machines and technology don’t manage learning any more than the car or public transport that you use to get to work manages your journey.

Like Topsy

Like Topsy in Uncle Toms Cabin, today’s LMS systems have “just growed'”. They have developed from stand-alone classroom training scheduling and administration systems (Oracle’s OTA was a classic of that genre) to incorporate the launch and tracking of eLearning courses and shorter nuggets of content, the Boolean logic of pre-and post-requisites, and so on and so on.

David Wilkins ‘Argument #2’ lists a mind-boggling array of features of a modern LMS – many of them focused on ‘managing’ processes, skills, forms, competencies, careers, goals certification, files, workflows, appraisals, events, assets, users, groups, pages and so on. Impressive, but primarily built around a top-down view of organisational learning. Not really management, more control.

Now the LMS world is in the race to vacuum up more ‘social’ functionality and dump it into, or add it onto, their database structures.

The Right Place?


I would question whether the LMS is the best starting point for building infrastructure to support either workplace and experiential learning or ‘learning through others’ whether at the real or virtual water cooler, or as part of the on-going process of learning and development. LMS seems to be a tool designed and adapted for a world of reasonably neat formal event-based learning, not a messy world of informal process-based learning. The equally idiosyncratic 2.0 tools seem to be a better bet to support individual learning in the new world. Maybe LMS should stick to the role it was originally conceived for and just get better at that.

Again, I’m sure some LMS vendors have sold their products to clients on the basis that they provide a solution in a box. I doubt that one solution suits many organisations, though. Most organisations see themselves as having unique needs and operating in unique ways. When you get under the skin, many of these ‘unique’ characteristics are not unique but really quite common in specific industries or sectors. However, the nature of organisations, as with people, is that they will vary both within and between, so single point-solutions are unlikely to work for all.

What Organisations Want To Do

One point that Kate makes is that today’s LMS offerings are based on what organisations actually want to do.

Maybe some organisations do want the mind-boggling array of functionality in today’s LMS, but most don’t. It’s the sum of the parts. If you buy a new DVD player you don’t necessarily want it to contain every function ever developed in DVD players since the beginning of time. Some LMS functionality is undoubtedly essential, but all certainly isn’t.

Many of the features that have been incorporated into LMS architecture over the past 10 years have been driven a Gollum-type obsession with ‘the shiny’ – an attempt to do a ‘Microsoft’ and become all things to all people – bringing in elements of performance management, talent management and other HR process controls.

I’m surprised there’s not a ‘water cooler conversation scheduler’ in David’s list. Maybe in the next version…

The Value of Learning

Kate ended her piece by saying:

“..perhaps it would be good if our thought leaders (who we need and admire) could lend a hand here. Maybe give us all some new ideas as to how we can really prove the worth of our learning to the organisation. Right now, that might come in useful.”

My suggestion to help Kate out here would be to recommend that every learning professional and every professional in the learning LMS business comes to appreciate that learning is a continuous personal process that isn’t measured by any form of pre- and post-assessment, no matter how sophisticated. This personal process can’t be ‘managed’ any more than you, waiting at the bus stop, can ‘manage’ the arrival of the number 32 bus.

Learning is an accumulation of experiences supported by practice in context and by interaction with others – who may be your peers, your supervisor, or your friends. Even your friendly learning professional.

Learning can only be said to have occurred when behaviour has demonstrably changed. Eric Kandel, who won his Nobel Prize for his work on learning and memory, said it for me:

“Learning is the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories”

I’d love to know whether there’s an LMS out there that can manage that process.


  1. Hi Charles,
    Just a quick comment on a statement that really caught my attention, you wrote "LMS seems to be a tool designed and adapted for a world of reasonably neat formal event-based learning, not a messy world of informal process-based learning."

    A lot of the informal learning I do, thus I imagine others do, is event-based -- I want to learn something quick and dirty and then move on to the next project. It's strictly event-based

    And as to formal learning, I try to make mine as processed-based as possible, which mostly depends on how well I can convince management that moving from an event-based model to a more process-based one would bring the best results.

    So at least to me, I see both informal and formal learning as being both event and process-based.

  2. I agree with Donald that the informal and formal categorization is distinct from learning experience which may indeed be both event and process based, most likely a mix of the two. Kandel's quote sort of states the obvious really. Of course we learn from an ongoing process of experience, memorization, reflection and theorisation. Careful design of that process can make it a faster, safer, satisfying, and economical (time an money) experience. As learning specialists this what we should be focusing on. Not so much on control (the domain of the LMS and compliance culture), but through nurture, persuasion, context sensitivity, and channels for sharing and practice. Charles, as you say, the LMS is only a small part of the broader picture.

  3. Donald - in using the term 'event-based' I was referring learning events structured by someone other than the learner - modules, courses, programmes, curricula etc. This is different to learning that is 'process-based' - i.e. learning that you carry out as part of the work process and is through experience, practice, conversations and reflection.

    I think the informal learning you are referring to ("I want to learn something quick and dirty and then move on to the next project") is actually process-based - either part of, almost inseparable from, the workflow.

    I guess we could argue the toss, but it may end in a quantum mechanics discussion about particles and wave functions ;)

  4. Nice post and a really interesting discussion.

    In my opinion we're showing a classic curve in growth and product development in the LMS marketplace. More and more features get invented and added to the product offering, pushing it through and beyond what the average user actually wants or needs.

    Now there exists a space underneath the current LMS offerings which demonstrates Christensen's concept of a disruptive innovation - one that offers less features at a lower price than the current offerings. I see this in offerings like Litmos, Notion Learning and MindFlash.

    But, having said this, I believe these emerging technologies are only reforming that particular part of the organisation that is concerned with the formal, compliance-based learning requirements. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a market for this stuff now and for years to come - in fact, its perhaps the only part of our industry that's a no-brainer.

    But it's still concerned primarily with the management of learning, not the process. For me, the LMS represents the school administration office, not the classroom itself. Without it the classroom can't survive. But its presence has little baring on the quality of the learning that goes on in the classroom...

  5. very interesting debate... I agree all too often the LMS is an 'administration office', a cold/bland environment not really designed with the end user in mind. If organisations expect their people to use this as an access tool for their formal or informal learning requirements it has to be as engaging and as specific to the individual as possible. All too often the LMS has too much functionality and ultimately becomes confusing or difficult for the end user to use... if this is the case then it will provide very limited value beyond the compliance records Charles references. These are a must in many organisations but do not represent the value of learning. For me learning is about how do individuals better themselves so they can improve their professional and personal capabilities and in turn improve their lives. This desire must ultimately come from the individual but it would be made a lot easier for them if LMS providers considered the end user experience more rather than how many bells and whistles they can squeeze into the platform.

  6. I understand that Formal E-Learning courses may be used in scenarios where we wish to push compliance conformance or control the learning outcomes. Would controlling the learning outcomes include getting people to learn fifty different software products,the 10 most common scenarios for handling customer issues with these products due to bugs and individual scenarios? In a situation where these support agents have to constantly run to supervisors who have met thousands of similar scenarios and you have waiting customers, how would a learning professional aid the informal learning process?It is obvious that they jabber supervisors and colleagues for answers but all thatinformation is normally not available to all agents at one time and the supervisors could get overloaded. Wouldn't this be a scenario where you have to control learning outcomes? Also, how can one support informal learning processes with existing structures in such a case?

  7. What is really missing from many LMSs is the demonstration of higher order thinking critical questioning and demonstrating that the knowledge has been learned. LMSs that can facilitate this will allow understanding, synthesis and deep evaluation which is the ultimate goal of the teachers.